I cannot think of a better time to consider how to foster appreciation and understanding of other faiths and cultures in children than as we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we consider his life and legacy we see that although it may appear we have made great strides, we yet have a ways to go toward really creating harmony in our communities. Having the wish to do so is the very beginning of this journey.
Many years ago I was in a learning situation which required quick study and application skills and we used the phrase “see one, do one, teach one.” This methodology requires that we see that which we want to learn, we follow the example, and then we set the example so others can learn. Any time we’re working with children these same principles can apply.
If the goal is to help children be more accepting, understanding, and comfortable with those embracing different faiths and from differing cultures the first step is for us adults to achieve, or at least be working toward, those goals ourselves. How do we do this?
An easy way to begin this process is to read and share with your children books about other peoples and their customs. Your local library can surely help with this or simply do a search online. Gus’ Fortunate Misfortune could be a good place to start! This is the story of Gus, a young mouse in trouble who finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings, who must confront his fears, overcoming obstacles and receiving help from an unexpected friend (by Susan Pepka, Full Cycle Publications, ages 3-7). The setting of the story is a Buddhist meditation center and the unexpected friend is a young monk. Gus’ Fortunate Misfortune very gently introduces readers to buddhist tradition in a sweet and playful manner.
Next on the list would be to visit ethnic festivals and fairs. You’ll have a chance to experience new foods, music, art, language, customs as well as mingle with people who are thrilled to share their culture with you. This is easy to do if you live in a bustling urban center like Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, etc. A bit more difficult if you’re living in a rural area but not impossible! This may take a bit of planning but I suspect the results will be well worth it.
Once you’ve gained some insights to other peoples and cultures you can take the next step by visiting places of worship. It may feel uncomfortable, possibly a bit scary, to walk into a new church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. Remember though that these are centers for faith, growth, learning, kindness, love, and compassion and in general the people there will be happy to share their faith and culture with you. There was a time in my own life that I attended a church whose membership was predominantly African-American. Many times I was the only white person there. Yet, I was never made to feel uncomfortable, I was always welcomed
whole-heartedly, and this was one of the greatest times of spiritual growth for me. Make this an experience for the entire family, always keeping an open heart and mind.
One of the greatest opportunities, and best blessings, is the ability to listen to others’ stories and foster friendships. When we sit down and listen to another person, hear their challenges, adventures, dreams, griefs, and longings we see that theirs are not so different from ours. When we laugh, cry, ponder, question, explore our lives together we strengthen the web through which we are all connected. Seeing that others simply wish to be happy and free from suffering, just as we do, we create bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood and our hearts are forever changed.
Understand as you begin upon this journey that there will be moments of discomfort. You will more than likely feel vulnerable, exposed, and on shaky ground. Also know that this is perfectly okay. Welcome this discomfort and know that it is only an unpleasant sensation and one that will diminish with further practice and exploration. You may actually find that your children, following your own wonderful example, will “take to the water” much more easily than you. And your mind can rest easy knowing that you are providing your children with lessons and opportunities that will serve them, and their communities, for generations. An amazing legacy indeed.